The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen
Translated by Lola M Rogers
I remember when Pushkin Press first published their edition of this novel, it was all over the blogosphere. Although I soon acquired a copy, I didn’t have time to read it then, but have now, and what a treat it was!
Rabbit Back is an unusual little town in Finland, with a high proportion of authors resident in their midst. This is because of Laura White, author of the Creatureville series of children’s books. In 1968, she set up the strictly invitation-by-her-only ‘Rabbit Back Literature Society’ (RBLS). Initially, children whom she thought were promising young writers, were invited to join and become her protégés, and the nine members went on to become successful authors, each in their own way.
Ella Amanda Milana, grew up in Rabbit Back and now she has returned as a supply teacher. The novel opens with her encounter with a rather different version of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment – the book has a totally different outcome to the classic text. Perplexed, she takes the copy to the library, run by Ingrid Katz, librarian, author and a member of the RBLS. Ingrid immediately confiscates the ‘infected’ copy, it’s not the only classic to be found to have a mutated text, not that she tells Ella that. Ingrid has a personal mission to hunt them out and destroy them before the ‘book plague’ takes hold.
Then Laura White makes an announcement, there will be a final tenth member invited to join the RBLS, the first for decades. It’s Ella – who had submitted a story to the local newspaper ‘Rabbit Tracks‘. A party will be held at Laura’s mansion to celebrate Ella’s induction, the other members, who normally avoid each other for reasons which become clearer later, will be there. But, as Laura descends the staircase, towards Ella waiting at the bottom, she disappears! Just like that!
Deprived of her formal welcome into the RBLS, Ella is, nevertheless, now a member. She is now entitled to play ‘The Game’. Subject to a whole book of rules, members can challenge the others to answer a question, and be asked one in return. The members must totally ‘spill’ their answers truthfully and in full, anything less would result in expulsion from the society, and the challenger may use physical means to ensure the challenged member does ‘spill’. It’s no wonder they don’t socialise much, especially at night when they can be challenged, and why many, when challenged these days, use crystals of ‘yellow’ – truth serum sodium pentothal to make the process more painless.
Ella discovers that the members have long used the information gleaned from their Game challenges in their own books – again another reason for non-socialising – they all know everything about each other. As Ella starts playing by wondering about the book plague, she is soon taken down different avenues when she discovers she is not the first tenth member of the society. There was a boy who died, and discovering more about him becomes an obsession for her.
There’s a lot going on in the town of Rabbit Back. White’s Creatureville book characters have sort of infected the town – there are many shops selling figurines – particularly gnomes, and you can book a ‘Mythological Mapping’ of your property to see which creatures are spiritually lurking in your undergrowth. These fantasy elements add a very high quirk factor to the novel, yet there is also a hint of the suspense typical of Shirley Jackson surrounding White’s mansion, where all the town’s dog like to lurk – there is surely ‘something nasty in the woodshed’ to quote Ada Doom in Cold Comfort Farm.
Although having the trappings of a quirky mystery, The RBLS also has a strong psychological basis given by impact that playing the Game has on its participants, leaving them feeling emptied – a condition that is paralleled in the plight of Ella’s father who has dementia. There’s a playful yet serious subtext about authenticity and appropriation of another’s ideas in an author’s work.
We only really get to know three of the other RBLS members, Ingrid, Martti and Aura. Each has their own peccadilloes and eccentricities; Martti in particular, is key to Ella’s investigations. Jääskeläinen is clever at the way he dispenses the information, and it’s impossible to predict how the book will end until you’re there. Who was the first tenth member? What happened to the creepy Laura White? I couldn’t tell you, but this was an engaging mystery with some psychological depth, plenty of suspense, and full of quirky fun.
Source: Own copy. Pushkin Press paperback 2013, 345 pages. BUY at Amazon via my affiliate link (not available at Blackwell’s)